A Dragonlance Retrospective: Part 2

Following up on Part 1, we look at the return of Dragonlance from the 90s to its current incarnation.

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The Saga Continues

In the late 90s Dragonlance made another return, with a reboot in terms of both setting and system. It became the main setting for the launch of a new Saga Edition D&D (although this would be a very different system to the one later used for Saga system Star Wars). The changes were huge. The world of Krynn was stolen by Takhesis who left all the other gods behind and claimed it was now the ‘Age of Mortals’. The system was also completely different, more narrative and less dice rolling.

As you might imagine, the reception was extremely mixed. Those new to Dragonlance didn’t see the setting changes. Those who played the new system usually reported it to be well designed and a great way to play the game. But many Dragonlance fans hated the new setting, often just as a reaction to losing what they knew. Additionally, the new system failed to catch on with those who really wanted to just roll a d20. So, after a very mixed reception and a decent collection of boxed supplements the Saga edition faded into obscurity.

Dragonlance Returns

But, as you can see, Dragonlance refuses to just fade away entirely. In 2003 a new company, Sovereign Press, that would later become Margaret Weis Productions, began writing Dragonlance setting books for the new Third Edition of D&D. The new books were back to the hardcover supplements that fans expected, and followed the rules they were used to. This is to say nothing of the renewed confidence at having the original authors back in the driving seat. Sovereign Press produced nearly a dozen new books, including pretty much one for each class. This gave fans the detail they’d been waiting a very long time for in the shape of whole books on Wizards of High Sorcery and the Knightly Orders of Ansalon etc.

More importantly Sovereign Press rewrote the original series of 14 modules into an updated collection under the eye of veteran designer Cam Banks. Dividing the campaign into the same three parts as the Second Edition update, this new version went much further than upgrading the stats. Large amounts of extra options and encounters link the various dungeon adventures and make the whole series a more cohesive and continuous campaign.

There was just one problem though. In 1st and 2nd edition, there was essentially a dragon to fight at each level, and the original modules reflected that. There was a dragon to fight in each module, suitable for the party’s level of experience. However, 3rd edition made a point of upgrading all dragons as high level monsters. It was almost a core feature of the new system that dragons would be a thing for great heroes to fight, whatever their colour and age. So the designers had to find a variety of bonus options to stop the player characters getting slaughtered in the early modules fighting the same dragons who were now well out of their league. This ranges from the Blue Crystal Staff becoming a Deux Ex Machina and one dragon only facing the PCs after a brutal fight with another dragon leaves it on barely any hit points. So the adventures are also very much worth reading as a masterclass in adapting the narrative to the demands of a new system.

Sovereign Press finished producing books after creating a very healthy collection in 2007. Margaret Weis Productions went on to deliver several other games such as Smallville, Firefly and Leverage. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, who can both usually be found as regular guests at Gen Con have also just produced a new Dragonlance novel “Dragons of Deceit”.

Crossover Tales

While that would be the last for Dragonlance until recently (except for a fan-crafted 4e conversion on the Dragonlance Nexus) the story doesn’t entirely end there. Dragonlance spread into two other D&D settings. The first was Spelljammer with ‘Krynnspace’ a module allowing Spelljammer crews to reach the Dragonlance setting from space. This not only linked Dragonlance and Spelljammer together but offered Dragonlance fans a view of Krynn as a planet is a system rather than as the continent of Ansalon.

The other crossover came in the shape of Ravenloft, with Lord Soth’s tragic backstory making him one of the lords of a domain. There was even a crossover Dragonlance/Ravenloft adventure facing the Death Knight in ‘Where Black Roses Bloom’. In this adventure the player characters face Lord Soth via several of his memories as he tries to return to Krynn.

Now Dragonlance returns again with Shadow of the Dragon Queen, and perhaps it might spark a few more 5e adventures in Ansalon and beyond. If you want to know more about the history of Krynn in game terms, it is always worth checking out Shannon Appelcline’s product histories on DrivethruRPG and in his books ‘Designers and Dragons’.
 

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GreyLord

Legend
Were the mechanics just not good or was it a little too ahead of its times or what?

It has been over 20 years since I tried it and I can't remember all that well about it. Opinions differ between people.

I played it and tried to make as good a go of it as possible. I hated it. Absolutely hated it.

The problem wasn't really the mechanics, but the mechanics didn't really gel with Dragonlance.

Dragonlance was written originally as an organic outgrowth of AD&D rules. The books, novels, and everything else reflected those rules, at least in some form of symmetry, throughout their length.

The card game (and that really was what it was, an RPG card game) didn't really reflect the world of Dragonlance all that well. It didn't reflect how the world operated at all prior to the 5th age, and even for the 5th age it didn't really represent the way the novels presented it all that well either.

It was like it was trying to portray something that was diametrically the opposite of what the novels presented, and that created a discordant anachronism for the player when trying to play in the world they knew from the novels with the rules presented in the game. It was like trying to comb your hair with a thornbush (with a lot of thorns) that claimed to be a hairbrush...all you suceeded in doing was tearing your hair out as you messed it up rather than getting anything close to what you wanted to accomplish.

That's the best I could put it. It wasn't that rules were before their time, or that they were bad mechanics, but that the mechanics really didn't represent the world as the world was presented in other locations and that made it so you couldn't actually play the adventures like they were in the novels or anything resembling the novels, games, or anything else...even the 5th age novels were impossible to really replicate the feel or spirit of in the game.
 

Steel_Wind

Legend
That's a shame. Several of my players have stated that DL 10 was the best D&D adventure ever written.
I have run DL10 in another form for another campaign. It is one of the best, yes. Its key feature benefits from players who are ENTIRELY attached to their characters and are deeply involved in the story of the campaign. The strength of the adventure depends very much on this emotional engagement, so it's not something DMs can just pluck off of the shelf and unleash it and expect great things.

The key to running a classic DragonLance campaign is to get the idea of playing the novel characters out of your head and the heads of the players and just throw it on a super-hot fire. You need to be playing a game, not re-enacting the novels. That way leads your group to want to play some other campaign that is anything but Classic DragonLance - fast. So change things up, move story bits around if your players know the story. Keep it new and keep em guessing.

For most of us, the memories of Dragons of Autumn Twilight are always too clear and too well defined. The rest of the series is fuzzy, but the details of that one remain. The novel covers DL1 and DL2 in a blow by blow manner. Once you get past DL2 -- and the end of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, it's smooth sailing. But you have to get there - and that's not not easy. In order to move the story to a place the players won't know, but still keeping the tale focused on the Classic DragonLance tale, I plan to do the following:

In DL1 - Add an entire section to Haven. Homebrew away. The PCs need to leave Solace and head to Haven. Along the way, they will encounter Draconians at Twin Flat and then hundreds of refugees making their way to Haven. That scene on the road looks like Exodus. I will focus on the refugees -- THAT is the heart of the story. DragonLance is a fantasy war story about heroes making a difference during a time of Epic warfare. The war is about people - dislocation - and the deaths (and worse) of thousands of innocents. The refugees are the main evidence of the cost of that war and why the PCs have a stake in it. What the Seekers opposed to the PCs in Haven are focused upon is not power, riches, or glory or some idiotic theocracy. They are not there twirling moustaches to be evil. The Seeker Locar is instead worried about Haven and those refugees. How will Haven house them? How will it feed them? How can Haven get those people back to their farms and their lives? What if they are attacked? The people of Haven will be killed, raped, robbed and enslaved - and the refugees, too.

The foes of the PCs have their reasons for trying to sell them out and fork over the Staff to Verminaard's forces. Those opponents are motivated to do those things that they think will help in order to spare the people from the worst costs of war. It's just another path to the same goal - and it looks like a more certain path to safety, too.

By the time you sort all of that out in Haven, DL1- Dragons of Despair will feel like a brand new adventure (for the good reason that nearly all of what you homebrew for them to do in Haven will be new). I will ultimately send them out of Haven chased on boats down the river and they will get back on track to Xak Tsaroth. Skip the Wicker Dragon Statue entirely, but definitely do the battle in the "kettle" elevators if the PCs choose that route. Then just run the damned module. Xak Tsaroth's design holds up quite well.

In DL2 - Dragons of Flame, the PCs should be able to do whatever it is they want to do once in Pax Tharkas. Just run the module. The problem in DL2 isn't in the Sla-Mori or Pax Tharkas -- the problem there comes at the beginning. It's NEVER a good idea to capture PCs and take their stuff. Even when you START a campaign with this trope, the outcome is uncertain. Doing it in a campaign that is well underway? Don't rely on PCs surrendering, they rarely do. That's just foolhardy adventure design. Maybe in 1983, those authors didn't know based on decades of experience how bad an adventure idea that is in practice. But I've been DMing for 43 years now -- I know that's an inherently bad idea. We all do. So we need another plan to be Plan "A". The PCs getting captured is, at best, Plan "B".

If they PCs choose to intercede and surrender, then they do. But your main plan should be the Elven scouts and the sons of Solostaran who lead them to attack the slave caravan on the road from Solace to Pax Tharkas. The PCs should be focused on destroying the Hobgoblins and Draconians and freeing those prisoners (their neighbours, many of whom are about to be refugees.

Refugees again? Yes. It's all about the refugees. It never really stops being about them at any time. Just as we will be throughout the beginning and well into the middle of the campaign, we'll keep coming back to them. DL3 and DL4 are all about saving the people, too. Keep your focus there. That's the theme of the first third of the campaign.

Once you get out of DL2 - it's smooth sailing. Easier said than done.
 

Unfortunately, over the years I've made no less than 3 attempts to run the original DL modules in some incarnation, and just never can get the group invested to get past the equivalent of DL1. I'm hoping the 5E version, which doesn't have you playing as the novel characters turns out to be the charm that finally works.

That's a shame. Several of my players have stated that DL 10 was the best D&D adventure ever written.
DL2 is pretty poor though. I would suggest doing re-writes of the weaker adventures in the series. Some of them might be skippable all together.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
SAGA - I wanted to like it, but now, looking back, I'd rather burn it all. It was bad, bad, bad. I was glad when the 3E Sovereign Press showed up and rolled it back to the mainstream rules and the War of the Lance.

Unfortunately, over the years I've made no less than 3 attempts to run the original DL modules in some incarnation, and just never can get the group invested to get past the equivalent of DL1. I'm hoping the 5E version, which doesn't have you playing as the novel characters turns out to be the charm that finally works.
Well, I'll be livestreaming it from Jan 10th! Starting with DL1, using A5E rules.

 



Hutchimus Prime

Adventurer
It has been over 20 years since I tried it and I can't remember all that well about it. Opinions differ between people.

I played it and tried to make as good a go of it as possible. I hated it. Absolutely hated it.

The problem wasn't really the mechanics, but the mechanics didn't really gel with Dragonlance.

Dragonlance was written originally as an organic outgrowth of AD&D rules. The books, novels, and everything else reflected those rules, at least in some form of symmetry, throughout their length.

The card game (and that really was what it was, an RPG card game) didn't really reflect the world of Dragonlance all that well. It didn't reflect how the world operated at all prior to the 5th age, and even for the 5th age it didn't really represent the way the novels presented it all that well either.

It was like it was trying to portray something that was diametrically the opposite of what the novels presented, and that created a discordant anachronism for the player when trying to play in the world they knew from the novels with the rules presented in the game. It was like trying to comb your hair with a thornbush (with a lot of thorns) that claimed to be a hairbrush...all you suceeded in doing was tearing your hair out as you messed it up rather than getting anything close to what you wanted to accomplish.

That's the best I could put it. It wasn't that rules were before their time, or that they were bad mechanics, but that the mechanics really didn't represent the world as the world was presented in other locations and that made it so you couldn't actually play the adventures like they were in the novels or anything resembling the novels, games, or anything else...even the 5th age novels were impossible to really replicate the feel or spirit of in the game.
You said it better than I could’ve.
 

Achan hiArusa

Explorer
Were the mechanics just not good or was it a little too ahead of its times or what?
It is a very good ruleset and almost every professional review I've read says that it emulated the feel of the 5th Age really well and allowed the characters to focus on story instead of combat. But there were people who thought that it was the White Wolfing of AD&D with Nature and Demeanor on the character sheet. But even before that there were people upset at the "Purple Prose" of the first Dragonlance modules. Anytime there is a shift in the game that brings new people in the "Old School" gets upset. It happened then and it is still happening now.
 

Teemu

Hero
I'm likely to run a War of the Lance inspired Dragolance game in the near future, and I've been thinking about how the setting works in 5e.

Back when they were current releases, I was a big fan of the 3.5 Dragonlance product line and how they figured out a way to marry all the different versions of the world with the 3rd edition rules. However, since then I've come to appreciate the original Dragonlance world much more than the unfocused mess it became starting with the Fifth Age products. The War of the Lance Ansalon has a lot of really fun and inspiring elements to it, and it's by far the best incarnation of the world.

I also really like the approach WotC took with Shadow of the Dragon Queen. They didn't try to come up with complicated explanations for sorcerers, warlocks, and other classes. Instead they just retconned everything into the world, and I think that's the easiest solution. It's easier to straight up adjust the old (sometimes really iffy) stuff to fit current standards rather than create convoluted in-world reasonings for any changes you make.

This made me reconsider some of the traditionally ill-fitting game elements, namely certain classes. Bards in 5e have Bard Colleges. What if these Colleges have existed in Ansalon for centuries or even millennia? Maybe the Empire of Istar persecuted and nearly destroyed them? There's all kinds of magic in Krynn aside from wizards, sorcerers, and clerics. Some barbarian subclasses have magical abilities. No one's really asking for a detailed explanation on how the magical barbarians fit into the classic Dragonlance magic paradigm. We could use the same approach for bards -- they've always been there, using their eclectic magic of the Words of Creation. The Mages of High Sorcery aren't particularly concerned about them, just as they're not concerned about clerics or Totem Warrior barbarians.

Druids could be practitioners of primal magic, as described in the 5e PHB. Like, why would the three nature gods have their own special type of priest when we have the Nature domain in 5e? Druids and rangers could've existed just fine in the Time of Darkness, maybe in the periphery if needed. Healing magic isn't restricted to divine casters in 5e, so we can ignore that issue altogether. We don't need healing to be this big thing that was lost in the Cataclysm because the absence of clerics and paladins is enough on its own, not to mention the massive upheaval of societies and geography.

Also, don't cloud, storm, stone, frost, and fire giants work great as the original "high ogres"? There's no good place for them in Ansalon because they'd be such powerful creatures and communities, and traditionally they haven't appeared in Dragonlance, so why not just reimagine the ancient super ogres as the classic giants?
 
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amethal

Adventurer
Once you get out of DL2 - it's smooth sailing. Easier said than done.
How do you handle splitting the party? Or do you keep the party together (and miss out on one of the branches of the campaign)?

It's one of the things that has stopped me wanting to run the campaign - although my dream solution would be to have a large pool of players and run both elements in alternate sessions with separate groups.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I'm likely to run a War of the Lance inspired Dragolance game in the near future, and I've been thinking about how the setting works in 5e.

Back when they were current releases, I was a big fan of the 3.5 Dragonlance product line and how they figured out a way to marry all the different versions of the world with the 3rd edition rules. However, since then I've come to appreciate the original Dragonlance world much more than the unfocused mess it became starting with the Fifth Age products. The War of the Lance Ansalon has a lot of really fun and inspiring elements to it, and it's by far the best incarnation of the world.

I also really like the approach WotC took with Shadow of the Dragon Queen. They didn't try to come up with complicated explanations for sorcerers, warlocks, and other classes. Instead they just retconned everything into the world, and I think that's the easiest solution. It's easier to straight up adjust the old (sometimes really iffy) stuff to fit current standards rather than create convoluted in-world reasonings for any changes you make.

This made me reconsider some of the traditionally ill-fitting game elements, namely certain classes. Bards in 5e have Bard Colleges. What if these Colleges have existed in Ansalon for centuries or even millennia? Maybe the Empire of Istar persecuted and nearly destroyed them? There's all kinds of magic in Krynn aside from wizards, sorcerers, and clerics. Some barbarian subclasses have magical abilities. No one's really asking for a detailed explanation on how the magical barbarians fit into the classic Dragonlance magic paradigm. We could use the same approach for bards -- they've always been there, using their eclectic magic of the Words of Creation. The Mages of High Sorcery aren't particularly concerned about them, just as they're not concerned about clerics or Totem Warrior barbarians.

Druids could be practitioners of primal magic, as described in the 5e PHB. Like, why would the three nature gods have their own special type of priest when we have the Nature domain in 5e? Druids and rangers could've existed just fine in the Time of Darkness, maybe in the periphery if needed. Healing magic isn't restricted to divine casters in 5e, so we can ignore that issue altogether. We don't need healing to be this big thing that was lost in the Cataclysm because the absence of clerics and paladins is enough on its own, not to mention the massive upheaval of societies and geography.

Also, don't cloud, storm, stone, frost, and fire giants work great as the original "high ogres"? There's no good place for them in Ansalon because they'd be such powerful creatures and communities, and traditionally they haven't appeared in Dragonlance, so why not just reimagine the ancient super ogres as the classic giants?
While not in the novels, giants already have been noted to exist in Krynn.

Because of the way sorcery is handled, bards are a bit more troublesome to incorporate. There is, however, some precedent in Astinus possibly being a role model for bards - perhaps they could have started as clerks in his services, from which after the Cataclysm they set up colleges in an attempt to collect and rebuild the lost histories. However, their spell abilities is a wrinkle - perhaps there have been so few in the past they were ignored or treated as renegade mages. Perhaps just prior or during the PC's entrance into the story the Towers might open up to start testing bards (similar to the reemergence of Clerics), or they might ignore them as servants, mouthpieces or clerics of Gileam and therefore exempt from testing.
 

Steel_Wind

Legend
How do you handle splitting the party? Or do you keep the party together (and miss out on one of the branches of the campaign)?

It's one of the things that has stopped me wanting to run the campaign - although my dream solution would be to have a large pool of players and run both elements in alternate sessions with separate groups.
My plan is to split the party. The previous players of those characters that split will continue to play them (roughly corresponding to a 50/50 split) -- and new PCs will be set up by those players without one in that group. Vice versa for the other part of the split party. Those modules are designed to proceed in parallel from a narrative/timeline standpoint in any event.

I will then run each group of PCs on alternating sessions. I expect I will have four additional players available to supplement both "halves", too. So, I think I'm good!

The inability to run these adventures on alternating sessions was a feature DMs had to put up with in 1985 and 1986 -- before all of the modules were published. That's 37 years in the rear view mirror now. We'll be fine.
 
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Abstruse

Legend
So here's what happened with Dragonlance Fifth Age and Saga:

The Saga system was never meant to be used for the sort of epic high fantasy of Dragonlance. It was meant originally as a heist-style game about the criminal underworld. The system was designed with the concept of being more storytelling-focused for smaller scale stories rather than the worldspanning massive fantasy worlds better suited to AD&D 2nd Edition.

But TSR found themselves in a very difficult position after they signed a license with Sweetpea Entertainment for the movie rights to Dungeons & Dragons. The license they signed gave away film rights to everything D&D - including the New York Times Bestselling Dragonlance Saga. Which they realized afterward was something they should not have signed away in a blanket deal like that.

So the grand idea to fix the problem was to...make Dragonlance no longer a D&D game. So they grabbed the only other RPG system they had laying around, which was the unpublished Saga system, and had Dragonlance shoehorned into it. And, as is tradition when changing editions, blew the world up to explain away the massive changes.
 

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